If there were ever a prequel made about prequels, it would need to acknowledge the air of desperation and disrepute which once hung over this now-acceptable format. Butch and Sundance: The Early Days got a cinema release in 1979 but most of these cash-ins – The First 9½ Weeks, Psycho IV: The Beginning – went straight to video without passing “Go.” Solo: A Star Wars Story, which fills in the background history of the smuggler and pilot Han Solo, might have looked more at home on the smaller screen. It isn’t the worst Star Wars prequel (difficult to see The Phantom Menace surrendering that distinction) and nor can it be called this franchise’s most shameless spin-off, not so long as there are people who still remember Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure.
But it’s a pedestrian affair, visually flat and dingy, with a plot that amounts to a lot of to-ing and fro-ing without establishing very much. It is tempting to blame the production’s well-publicised upheavals: Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (directors of The Lego Movie and the Jump Street comedies) were replaced midway through shooting by Ron “Safe Pair of Hands” Howard. (They now have an “executive producer” credit on Solo.) Then again, there were rumours of extensive reshoots under a new director on the previous Star Wars spin-off, Rogue One, and that turned out just peachy.
Alden Ehrenreich, who steps into Harrison Ford’s battered boots as Han, was also the subject of tittle-tattle, with suggestions that an acting coach was drafted in to help bolster his performance on set. (Ironic given his knowingly witty turn as a movie star out of his depth in the Coen brothers’ Hail Caesar!) Ehrenreich is fine, if perhaps too low-key for such a noisy, higgledy-piggledy picture. The worst one could say is that he comes across as superficial, and faintly overwhelmed by all the droids and monsters and shoot-outs, a charge that would never have been levelled at Ford, who always gave the impression of being above such nonsense. A bolshier presence – Jack O’Connell? Jack Reynor? – would have solved that problem. But the flaws of Solo extend further than a leading man with no inner life.
The film begins with Han signing up with the Empire in order to pursue his dreams of becoming a pilot, but mainly so he can earn enough credits to get back to his home planet where his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) is stranded. He falls in with a group of bandits – Beckett (Woody Harrelson), Val (Thandie Newton) and Rio Durant (voiced by Jon Favreau), a little rubberised monkey who resembles something you might find in the gift shop of a failing zoo. Rio has four arms, as we see when he nimbly cooks for his crew during a getting-to-know-you campfire scene. I couldn’t help notice, though, that he still has one free hand which might have been put to good use typing up a few zingers. After all, there’s an awful lot of dead air in the screenplay by the father-and-son team Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan, with spaces where you’d expect the wisecracks to go.
The one outright hilarious exchange occurs when a feisty droid, L3, mulls over the idea of a workplace romance with her human boss. Voice and attitude are courtesy of the magnificent Phoebe Waller-Bridge, star and creator of Fleabag, who contributed some of her own dialogue too. (I wonder if her brassy retort to a ruffian who threatens to flick her switch – “Good luck finding it” – was hers. It certainly has the tang of Fleabag.) Why not get her to do everyone else’s lines as well next time?
Han and his new friends find themselves in hock to the sinister Crimson Dawn syndicate, and duty bound to pull off the theft of a cargo of Coaxium, which sounds like acne cream but is in fact a highly sought-after fuel. As Dryden Vos, the head of Crimson Dawn, Paul Bettany is a playful and intimidating presence. Regrettably, all his scenes take place in one room, which is a rum state of affairs for a lead baddie. At least Darth Vader got to go out in the field: shake a few hands, kiss a few babies, put the telepathic death grip on the odd underling. No wonder Vos looks cross. Also, his face is streaked with pink lines which grow red when he’s angry. Battle scars? Physical peculiarities to signal malicious intent? Or just the imprint that bedsheets leave on the skin after a deep sleep? We may never know.
The point of the film, if it has one, is not whether Han will reunite with Qi’ra or pull off the Coaxium heist or anything else of that nature. It is to connect the dots with the other episodes, prompting sighs of nostalgia and recognition in the hardened fan; it’s to fortify further the Star Wars universe. John Powell’s score keeps echoes of John Williams in reserve until a good hour in, and only releases the full 1977 brass at around the 90-minute mark. We learn how Han got his surname. We hear Beckett tell Han not to trust anyone because people always betray you: good advice in the presence of the young Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), who will go on to do exactly that in The Empire Strikes Back. We also see Han’s first encounter with future sidekick and co-pilot Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) in a scene that is less “meet cute” than “meet brute.” The pair later take a shower together, which raises all sorts of questions, not least: how do you get a Wookiee dry?
The utilitarian production design is largely pleasing. Any prequel has a duty not to overshoot the technology of those films which occur later in the story (even if they were made 41 years ago, as the original Star Wars was) but Neil Lamont’s designs go the extra grubby mile. A goods train, the setting for one extended skirmish, resembles a long row of metal teeth rattling along a mountainside monorail, while some of the pursuit vehicles and spaceships are little more than chunks of scrap metal to which rocket boosters have been bolted.
Several characters are lost or shot or blown up along the way, and none of their compatriots seem much to notice, let alone mind. In the world of breakneck blockbuster cinema, where plot logic and characterisation can fall through the cracks of emergency rewrites, it’s every man or woman for himself. Glover doesn’t get much to do but he does it with his usual shimmering confidence. Even so, it’s helpful that his remarkable Childish Gambino video, “This Is America”, was released in the run-up to Solo, if only to remind audiences that there is more to him than sprinkling magic dust over mediocre filmmaking. The smallest dab of his charisma goes a long way, and he happens also to be at the centre of the picture’s only arresting image: a nice update of the classic battlefield tableau, with Lando braving gunfire to gather in his arms the broken parts of L3, only to have Chewbacca then scoop him up in turn and carry them all off to safety.
Not everyone is so lucky. The excellent Thandie Newton wears the rueful look of someone who is being underused and knows it. If it appears that she has somewhere far more interesting to be, that’s because she does. It’s called Westworld. They do actual characters there.
‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’ opens 24 May.